Rudd's baby farms not great for kids

Little children need the security, understanding and tolerance of a loving home, not institutionalization

Kevin Rudd's big idea for this weekend's 2020 Summit is a plan to help working families by setting up a national chain of government-run parent-and-child centres. Let's call them PC centres, for with universal child care at its core, this is a very PC idea. The Community Child Care Association's national secretary Barbara Romeril could hardly contain herself when she heard the news: "It's very exciting to finally have a government that gets it," she told the ABC. "We know this is what parents want and we know this is what's good for children." This is classic PC rhetoric, based on shaky evidence but repeated so often that people now assume it must be true.

Rudd wants these PC centres up and running by 2020, although he has no idea how much they will cost. While their core business will be child care, they will offer an all-encompassing range of services to all parents with children under five. There will be health checks on babies, child vaccinations, advice for mothers, counselling for parents, long hours day care for infants, and preschool early learning programs for toddlers. All of this will be underpinned by national quality standards, so every centre will be run in the same way and will be staffed by experts with lots of certificates and diplomas to their name.

Rudd assures parents they won't be compelled to use these PC centres, although they will be compelled to pay for them through higher taxes. This extra spending is OK, though, because it is an investment. As Maxine McKew, the Parliamentary Secretary for Early Childhood Education and Child Care, explained to Sky News: "All the experts tell us this is the way to go. You provide that intervention early on, through the early years, and that's how you get healthy children and, I think, less stress for parents as well."

But is there no downside to this idea? Perhaps Rudd, his ministers and the childcare cheer squad should take time to reflect on some of the problems before they plough ahead. There are at least seven to consider.

* The core business of these centres will be long hours child care, but despite what McKew and the Community Child Care Association claim, it isn't true that this is necessarily good for children. McKew suggests parents' stress levels can be reduced by long hours care, but she ignores evidence that cortisol (stress hormone) levels among young children spending long periods in institutional care are often disturbingly high, and this is surely what should concern us more. It is true that older children from very disadvantaged backgrounds can benefit from good quality formal care, but this is because the care they get at home is so appalling. Most very young children are better off raised by their parents, and the Government should look seriously at the evidence on this before spending billions of dollars herding them into government institutions.

* The new PC centres will destroy social capital (something the Rudd Government claims it wants to strengthen). At the moment, most of these services are already available to parents, but they are scattered rather than concentrated in one place, and they are unco-ordinated rather than being organised according to a single centralised formula. People get help from neighbours, family members, community clinics, churches, local play schools, and when they use these local resources it strengthens the social ties that create strong communities. Concentrating services in government centres may be more efficient, but it will erode local relationship networks.

* These centres will weaken the third sector and strengthen the power of government. There is a worrying trend for government to enlist voluntary organisations as its agents and then emasculate them. Welfare charities, for example, now depend on money from government contracts to run employment services, and the recently established Family Relationship Centres have effectively nationalised family counselling services previously run by groups such as Relationships Australia. The proposed new PC centres will likewise absorb existing community-based and commercial childcare providers. Open, democratic societies rely on a strong and vibrant third sector as a check and buffer against government power. In Australia, this is fast disappearing.

* These centres will further erode the autonomy of the states within our federal system. Many of the services they will provide are presently the responsibility of the states. As in health care (where the pressure is to nationalise hospitals), so too in child care, Canberra is shifting more power to itself in the name of efficiency.

* Rudd says these new centres will save money and avoid duplication. This is another way of saying they will be big, and there won't be many of them, in which case they will create more inconvenience for users. When your neighbourhood childcare centre has gone bust and you are strapping your toddler into the car for the daily commute across town to your nearest PC centre, remember this change was supposed to make life easier.

* The PC centres will redistribute income from poorer to richer parents by making the former contribute to the childcare costs of the latter. A couple sacrificing some of their joint income by having one parent stay home to look after the kids will now have to pay more tax to subsidise other couples who choose to keep working and earning while parking their kids in the PC centre. This violates the principle that government should remain neutral between parents who stay home and those who go out to work, as it represents an extensive intervention in favour of the latter at the cost of theformer.

* These centres are going to be expensive. Even Rudd doesn't know how much they are going to cost, but Crikey estimates a horrific annual bill of about $12 billion. Based on past experience, we can be sure they will get even more expensive over time as people's expectations and demands continue to rise. For a government that says it has inherited a budget blowout and needs to trim expenditure, this seems an odd way to cut costs. Before it commits to a huge expenditure such as this, the Government should take a deep breath and tell us the ultimate objective of its family strategy. Is it to get more mums back into work to ease the labour shortage? If so, government-run baby farms may be a good plan.

But if the objective is to give parents real choice about how to balance work and family, to support a vibrant community sector, or even to improve long-term child wellbeing, this PC proposal may not be the best way to achieve it.

Source. See here for how a similar Canadian scheme did a lot of harm.

Posted by John Ray. For a daily critique of Leftist activities, see DISSECTING LEFTISM. For a daily survey of Australian politics, see AUSTRALIAN POLITICS Also, don't forget your summary of Obama news and commentary at OBAMA WATCH

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